BLOG POST FOR FOREST OF IMAGINATION – POETRY WORKSHOPS FOR YOUNG WRITERS
I am a writer, artist and workshop-practitioner and have run workshops with Key Stage 3 students in Somerset for several years. My aim is always to put the joy (often lost in the transition from primary to secondary education) back into writing. I start, almost always, with a blank page. From there we can see words as friendly tools, something to gather, sort out, substitute, rearrange, thinking about sounds and patterns. If children start by putting down their own words, they see that sound devices (rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance) or use of imagery (metaphors, similes, sensory imagery, personification etc) are something they can conjure from inside themselves. Thereafter, it becomes easier for them to recognise their function and value in works of literature.
When I was asked to work alongside Jessica Palmer at Bath City Farm for Forest of Imagination 2020, I aimed to offer simple workshops to young visitors inspired by the life of the farm, from the lost mole snuffling through clover on the edge of the path, to the resident goats, pigs, ponies, ducks and chickens to the wildflower plants, vegetable plants, medicinal herbs, shrubs, trees, wild insects and honey bees. I always like to see what children bring of themselves in workshops – to allow their view of the world to shape the work we will do. When the pandemic forced the farm to close, and Forest to go online, I realised that would be impossible.
The aim of the online workshops I have put together is to allow a creative framework, to encourage the young writers to peer closely into the world of the farm. It is difficult to do this through the flat surface of a computer screen. The imagination needs to work harder. But the Bath City Farm website has some wonderful pictures, and a live feed of feeding time! You can see and hear the pigs grunting, wheezing and snorting into their buckets even if you can’t smell them. How do they smell? It doesn’t really matter – it could be lavender, barbecue sauce, or bubble gum. In creative writing, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. You don’t have to aim for realism, unless you want to.
The workshop for 4-7 year olds focuses on the shapes of animals. A poem is, in the most basic sense, a group of words given particular intensity by the choices and decisions of the writer. A very young writer might choose to write only one word – the sound made by each animal – in the animal templates. ‘Oink, Baaa, Moo, Meheh, Cluck, Quack.’ Rearrange the order and the poem sounds very different. Double or triple some of the sounds and the writer suddenly has a recognisable rhythm:
‘Baaa Baaa Moo Moo
Oink Cluck Quack
Meheh Meheh Moo Moo
Oink Cluck Quack.’
(Sing to the tune of ‘Twinkle twinkle little star.’)
The animal shapes allow for more advanced writers to do more sophisticated things. To fit a piece of writing inside the boundary of an animal’s body is itself a challenge to the imagination. Poets use line breaks to affect the way a poem is read, to lend intensity to certain words, to pause and surprise. Fluctuations in the space available invite the poet to put words down with a visual sense. They don’t have to sit on a ruled line. They can fill the shape, or follow its outline. In this way, the poem exists as a series of sounds, a written record and a concrete visual image.
Haiku offers 7 – 11 year olds a different kind of boundary. Traditionally Haiku was written as a celebration of nature so it seemed the perfect fit for Forest of the Imagination. The challenge of its short, tight structure allows for experimentation. It appears simple, but this can be deceptive. The poet must think about sound and rhythm as they count syllables. The focus is on a brief moment, on colourful, alluring images. With only 17 syllables, words become an expensive commodity. You can only afford to use the best ones – the ones that will express your idea with precision and clarity. The 5 – 7 – 5 syllable structure is not an unbreakable rule. Most modern poets don’t stick to it. But if you can manage to express your ideas, and squeeze them into the prescribed 17 syllables, you do get a strong buzz of satisfaction! In this workshop, I have shared the wonderful examples of poet Will Harper-Penrose – 26 perfect haikus, one for each letter of the alphabet, based on the wild animals of his south London home.
The 11 – 16 workshop invites young poets to look closely at the work of bees. The hives at Bath City Farm are hidden in a secluded corner, behind a green house, and the world within the hive is invisible, other than at the narrow slot near the base where the bees move in and out. If you sit and watch bees for long enough, you notice the particular challenges presented by different flowers as they go about gathering nectar. Campanula’s narrow shape forces them to squeeze down inside the bell. They grip tight to the fragile petals of small geraniums. They fall off and buzz with irritation. Larger purple geranium flowers present a rigid stamen, around which the bee turns circles. Allium provides a surface of stepping-stones between sharp spikes of pollen. Thyme’s tiny flowers require pinpoint stillness. The longer you watch them, the more you realise how complicated and challenging their job is. For anyone without access to bees, I have provided short films on the website and there are many others online although, of course, they’re no substitute for meeting Bath City Farm’s resident bees. The workshop provides a loose framework, using any poetic structure or none. It encourages young writers to imagine themselves inside the body of a bee, to see, hear, feel, taste and smell the world through a new paradigm.
The age groups are a guideline only. Anyone of any age can write a shape poem, a haiku or think about the world through five senses. I hope the workshops can be accessed and enjoyed by adults and children alike and that, by making and sharing poems, we can continue to connect to Bath City Farm, and to each other through Virtualforest2020.
Jo Backhouse 29/05/2020
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I am Jo Backhouse, a writer and artist, with a BA(Hons) in Fine Art and an MA in Creative Writing.